A couple of years ago one of Joe’s big motorcycles needed a part to prevent the slow drip-drip of fuel, so he maneuvered it into our slim motorcycle trailer at the Saginaw farmhouse where we’d raised our children.
“Up for a possible adventure?” he asked, with a grin. “I’ve got just the thing- a nice drive with a small adventure at its end. Bryn will enjoy ‘reading the news’ in interesting little parks and laybys. And after we pick up the bike, Shawn, my fix-it guy, wants to show us a really different farm not far away from his place. He says we shouldn’t miss it.”
So, on a lovely cool Sunday we drove due east for an hour, into mid-Michigan’s agricultural area. This dead flat, fertile farmland seems to extend forever in every direction. Big trees dressed in green offered shade to little towns as late summer dwindled down to a few precious days. After two Bryn ‘stop-n-sniffs’ at picnic areas we finally arrived at Shawn’s tree-lined home, deep in the countryside.
Motorcycle guys come in all shapes and sizes. Shawn was around 40, wiry and bearded, slim and strong. He kept his work area and the lawn around his garage tidy. (I’ve seen motorcycle shops crammed with so much clutter that navigating around heaps of empty, rusting oilcans and half-ruined bikes is difficult. These messy mazes are often patrolled by secretive cats, who expertly wind their way through the metal jungle hunting rodents.)
Not so here. Shawn’s tidy, treed property held repaired motorcycles neatly parked on the lawn, waiting for their owners. The garage was orderly. Empty soda cans nestled in bins. His attractive little home, tucked into a nearby stand of trees, had colorful toy wagons and trikes scattered around the front door.
“The wife and kids are off visiting family for the day,” he volunteered. Shawn was friendly and clearly took pride in his work. “I want to show you my friend’s motorcycle museum; it’s not far from here,” he said. “You up for it?”
The two men loaded Joe’s big motorcycle into the trailer; then Shawn flowed effortlessly onto his big black Harley and pulled out of the driveway. We followed in our car. About six miles later he led us up an attractive farm’s long driveway. A big well-kept clapboard two-story home sat atop a small hill to our left. There were a couple of large barns further away that also looked to be in good shape.
Shawn introduced us to a tall, contented guy named Sam, long retired, who was delighted by our interest in his hobby.
Suddenly, after exiting our car, we beheld a rare jewel! There, on the driveway’s verge, sat a beautiful little Honda motorcycle and sidecar, both painted a luscious royal blue with just a touch of red trim. Sam had meticulously brought it back to life after rescuing both pathetic skeletons from a junkyard years ago. Now the duo glowed with life. We started it; the engine purred. What a beauty!
“Would you sell it?” we asked, for form’s sake: I knew he’d never let it go.
“No way: this bike is practically family. I’ve spent five years rebuilding it, and want to savor the accomplishment for a while. Glad you appreciate it, though.
“There are a dozen more vintage Honda motorcycles in that building; it’s a sort of museum, which also holds my office.” He gestured to a structure behind him.
Turns out Sam had been a Honda salesman for nearly a quarter century, and when that franchise filed for bankruptcy he bought it, and all the bikes, too. That decision launched the rest of his life.
We walked into the middle of a long, narrow room lined with twelve vintage motorcycles, six on a side, extending the length of the room. These were well-kept vintage machines, mostly Hondas, with an occasional unrestored, rustier specimen tossed in for contrast. Most were at least 60 years old, and possessed their original paint. They were compact, basic machines, and all of them ran. There was even one pink one, meant for some lucky woman long ago.
He’d saved Honda signs, wonderful old posters of movie stars riding these bikes, and even stoplights from that era, too. It was like traveling back in time. Then, in an adjoining barn, we were shocked to see 150 more motorcycles, also from previous decades that awaited his expert hand. Most needed normal parts, like brakes, or new leather seats. They weren’t desperate bikes. Not like the almost vanished, miraculously resurrected one with the sidecar.
Seeing our enthusiasm Sam grinned and said, shyly- “You two may want to see something else.” We walked outside a minute to another huge barn. He opened its big doors. We gasped! There had to be over three hundred vintage Honda motorcycles, not working, representing every decade, neatly lined up- including on the entire second floor. It was an astounding sight! We wandered through the enormous structure in disbelief.
He knew every one, and was slowly working through the massive collection, restoring, polishing, making each machine whole again. Occasionally he’d sell one at his exasperated wife’s urging. (“If something happened to you, what would we do with all this?”) But he found it hard to part with even one!
Finally, we were led back outside to a big, elderly golf cart.
“Lets take a ride,” suggested Sam. “There’s one other area I’d like to show you.” We left Bryn in our car and hopped on. The cart made almost no sound as it moved.
The huge farm was very picturesque in the late afternoon light. We passed two strapping young men forking great masses of hay onto a wagon hitched to two large chestnut horses, who waited patiently. Sam and the men exchanged cheerful greetings as they worked. These two sons of a large Amish family had been renting much of Sam’s rich, fertile land for many years to raise their crops.
We carried on, riding through a very wide, mowed grass path, accompanied by Sam’s ancient Labrador retriever, who barked and spun around in dizzying circles directly in front of the cart, while constantly attacking the wheels. Sam just laughed as we kept going at a decent clip. “I don’t know why the old boy gets such a kick out of doing that...”
It was frankly nerve-racking. One slip and their dog would be toast.
Suddenly, we came upon hundreds of ravaged, skeletal motorcycles lined up in neat corridors in the middle of that huge field. “I use these bikes for parts,” he said. “One guy bought thirty ‘skellies’ from this graveyard to use for the same thing- parts. My wife was so happy! Even after that sale, though, there are still about 300 resting out here. This is the first year I haven’t cut the grass like I should, so that’s why the area looks a little rough right now. But I know what’s here. They’re absolutely essential to my restoration work.”
Unlike the ones in the barn, these were missing frames, handlebars, seats, shocks, special nuts and bolts, cylinders, fenders- you name it. But they still held on to bits and pieces that couldn’t be bought.
This was a useful graveyard.
Sam owns well over 600 motorcycles. He wakes up every morning a truly happy man who loves his machines, loves to resurrect them, race them, show them, and just be around them. Though in his seventies, he looked years younger. His nearly unlined face lit up as he surveyed his life’s work.
“I’m vintage; these motorcycles are, too. You might call them orphans who’ve found a home here. Every single one has a story.”
Finally, when we hopped out of the golf cart, which he parked by our car, he offered me a perfect Honey Crisp apple, part of a basketful he’d picked just before we arrived. Each tree’s sturdy branches groaned with sun-ripe apples that had never known spray. I hadn’t even noticed this well-tended apple orchard right next to his office. Wow. I’d been that blown away by the beautiful sidecar bike...
The Honey Crisp was absolutely delicious, the perfect finale to an astonishing afternoon spent exploring one man’s enduring passion, tidily played out on a very different sort of farm.